Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Greeks and the Romans: Translatio, Translation, and Parody in the Libro De Buen Amor

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Greeks and the Romans: Translatio, Translation, and Parody in the Libro De Buen Amor

Article excerpt

And therefore willingly I take his word, though wittingly I do mistake it, translata proficit.

--John Florio

Entiende bien mis dichos e piensa la sentencia; non me contesca con tigo commo al doctor de Grecia con el rribaldo rromano e con su poca sabiencia, quando demando Roma a Grecia la ciencia.

(st. 46)

(Understand my words well, and ponder their meaning; so you will not do to me what the Roman rogue, in his ignorance, did to the Greek sage when Rome wanted Greece's knowledge).

--Arcipreste de Hita, Libro de buen amor (1)

There is perhaps no other episode in the fourteenth-century Libro de buen amor that captures quite as well how the book and its notoriously fragmentary author figure, Juan Ruiz the Archpriest of Hita, set themselves up as parodies of authority and translatio studii than the Disputacion que los griegos e los rromanos en uno ovieron (The Disputation between the Greeks and the Romans) (sts. 46-70). In the story, the Romans appeal to the Greeks to pass down their wisdom. The Greeks, doubting that the Romans deserve to be their intellectual heirs, decide to test the younger, less refined cultures mettle in a debate. However, because the two groups have no common language, they agree to hold the debate in sign language (there is no explanation in the Libro of how they managed to come to this agreement; fortunately, there must have been a simultaneous interpreter on hand ready to broker the deal). The Greeks elect their wisest sage, and the Romans find a rogue, whom they dress up as a professor of philosophy, to represent them in the debate. The Greek sage and the Roman rogue exchange four hand signs, and then incongruously translate these visible signs into vernacular speech for their countrymen. The humor in the tale resides in the divergent interpretations of the signs made by the sage and the Roman masquerading as a philosopher.

The close connection between the Disputacion and the Libros reigning obsession with hermeneutics, and Augustinian sign theory in particular, has received a great deal of critical attention. (2) And, in this light, scholars have proposed varied origins and by no means mutually exclusive intertexts for the episode, ranging from Accursius's Great Gloss, Augustine's De Doctrina Cristiana, medieval rhetorical and dialectical training, folktales, and the Iberian maqama tradition. (3) The Archpriest's reveling in ambiguity challenges traditional hermeneutics, forcing readers who wish to read by Augustinian rules into interpretive limbo. In a study of the Archpriest's exemplum in relation to other medieval versions of the story, Laurence De Looze sums up the moral of the episode thusly: "The potentiality that perfect understanding and complete misunderstanding might be interchangeable and undiscoverable threatens to destabilize the whole process of meaning. The very rightness of an interpretation might therefore indicate nothing more than its massive wrongness." (4) The Disputacions particular appeal and critical challenges reside in its dual nature as a funny tale and "a theoretical manifesto," where learned semiotics combine with a performance of "embodied (mis)communication," thus transporting Augustinian sign theory "deeper into the post-lapsarian linguistic agora than the Church Father would ever ... have liked to go," as Vincent Barletta observes in his study of performativity and pragmatics in the episode. (5)

Even though the protagonists of this exemplum are translators, and translation is necessarily and intimately related to sign theory, the Disputacion has yet be read as an exemplum about the nature of linguistic transformation and transfer. A rereading of the Disputacion from the perspective of translation history and theory, as I will argue, not only allows us to appreciate how the Archpriest translates sign theory into fiction, but also how the Libro fashions the role of the clerical narrator and poet as a transmitter of Latin auctoritas in the Castilian romance vernacular. …

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